On @ The 90 – Death by Politics

NASA has been dealt blow after political blow for the past four decades. How much more can the agency withstand? Image Credit: Jason Rhian

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – The phrase, “NASA has reached a crossroads” is over used (to say the least) it is also inaccurate. NASA is at a standstill. It has reached this point due to mismanagement, the agendas of individuals and more importantly – politics. In 2008 NASA had a new direction, it was reinvigorated and – it was threatened. This was due to the “Vision for Space Exploration” that was, at that time, guiding the space agency, and was a hold-over of the Bush Administration. With Democrats now holding power, they decided to take a page out of a very old playbook.

In ancient Egypt when a new Pharaoh replaced an unpopular ruler, they would sometimes go behind and have the previous ruler’s name chiseled off of any artifacts. It was petty, predictable and one would hope – a bygone product of a primitive era. Sadly, similar activities took place within NASA recently.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a large illuminated wall decoration depicting various elements of the Vision for Space Exploration was removed. NASA placed a large image of the International Space Station along with the NASA meatball logo. But this was just a taste of what was to come.

Once Obama announced his intent to cancel the spacecraft that would follow the space shuttle, Orion, a political insurrection ensued. First, a “Constellation” prize of a stripped down lifeboat Orion was offered, to appease districts that Obama had to win when he went up for re-election. The president had made it apparent that he did not support NASA and was working to convert the shell of what would remain of the space agency into an engine for the Democratic Party agenda. Congressional leaders fought back and Orion was spared.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have this Bush-era survivor serve as a rallying point for those who went against the president’s efforts and the craft was renamed the Multi-Person Crew Vehicle, or MPCV. After a while the vehicle regained its original name and is now referred to as the Orion MPCV. But the president’s workers did manage to chisel one name free of the hieroglyphs – the Lunar Electric Rover (LER).

The LER has since been renamed the Space Exploration Vehicle or SEV – no I am not making that up – that’s really what they renamed it. Some will try to convince you that politics had nothing to do with these name changes and cosmetic alterations at all. A simple question bursts that bubble; ask them “When were these name changes conducted?” All of them were done after the president made his intentions for NASA known.

One would think that the White House would have more pressing concerns than such petty antics. One would think that NASA’s current leadership would wake up and smell the hydrazine leaking onto the floor and focus on securing the space agency’s future. One would think wrong. According to NASA’s Deputy Administrator Lori Garver NASA’s job is to promote world peace, create jobs, save the environment and end world hunger, everything to do with the mandate of any number of other agency’s, but nothing to do with NASA’s. NASA’s Administrator, Charlie Bolden thinks one of his agency’s chief missions is to reach out to the Muslim world and make them feel good about their accomplishments. Seriously? Is this what “hope and change” looks like?

Here is the thing. NASA needs to stay, at least somewhat, on the path that it is currently on. When the next president comes along, we cannot afford for he or she to yank the agency in another direction. The agency needs support and stability. President George W. Bush gave the agency a good mission – one he didn’t fund. President Obama has changed all of that, throwing away seven years worth of work and billions of taxpayer dollars.

Sadly, this paradigm does not appear to be changing anytime soon. We are a polarized society. A recent Facebook question if humanity would ever return to the Moon. The answers were primarily yes – the nation most mentioned was China. The U.S. was mentioned once. The statement? “The U.S.? – never.” The thing is, the person posting the statement is more-than-likely correct. The U.S. in its current state is not capable of accomplishing deeds like the Moon landings.

The U.S. is entering an era of near tribalism, where varying small factions stake out their tract of dirt and refuse to let go. When representatives from these factions gain power, they then work to erase what the opposing party has done. Where everyone is trying to grab a piece of the pie, where instead of striving for accomplishment, they are demanding entitlements. It is in this political environment that NASA is trying to survive. Only time will tell if such an amazing feat is even possible.

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  1. Things are bad, I know, Lori and Charlie aren’t the cause of that, or even a symptom. The two of them are space-minded people, who’ve worked for NASA or as space program advocates for decades now. They’ve demonstrated their bona fides, and it’s just silly to lambast them for suddenly echoing the tones of Barak Obama.

    That’s what they do, political appointees, all of them, sometimes quite noxiously. I remember Sam Fuller, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development back in the early 1980’s, addressing his employees with fervent praise for the pro-HUD greatness of Ronald Reagan, at a time when Reagan was trying to shrink the agency. It reminded me of nothing so much as a minor Roman aedile explaining himself to the Senate in the age of Caligula — with Caligula looking on. And I can recall Sean O’Keefe, the NASA Administrator in 1982, going out of his way to campaign for conservative Republican congressmen, deliberately using the prestige of the office he’d been appointed to. I don’t recall that this partisan enthusiasm troubled any space advocate at all.

    Sauce for (Democratic) geese is surely no worse than sauce for (Republican) ganders, right? I don’t dispute that NASA is in bad shape, and I often think NASA officials should have picked better policies, but those are real points of argument and appraisal, and If I could find the time or the energy I might discourse upon them at great length. Right now, I’ll settle for saying the tone of political speech employed by NASA’s leaders in the course of carrying out their duties is not a problem, even if we don’t like that speech — any more than their taste in music or the color of their hair or the their choice of television viewing.

    • Currently, NASA is under investigation by the Senate Commerce Committee. In FY 2012, there will be an independent investigation done through NASA’s IG of the Agency’s leaders’ conduct in the management of the SLS and Orion MPCV. So where we don’t yet know whether Charlie or Lori are to blame for anything that has gone wrong at NASA, within a year, we will.

      One thing that bears noting is that NASA does not pick policy. It is the President who picks policy, though Congress may override that policy through laws and appropriations; NASA’s job is to execute policy.

    • This raises a good question-Is NASA slow-rolling the SLS program to support Obama’s apparent lack of interest toward space exploration? Or are they creating policy simply because they themselves do not want SLS? Regarding your statement “I’ll settle for saying the tone of political speech employed by NASA’s leaders in the course of carrying out their duties is not a problem”. I respectfully disagree. Like any public agency, NASA is responsible for their words and actions. If they are truly, as you say, executing policy, then they can be judged by both their words and actions. Congress has mandated SLS, and whether you agree with their demands or not, you have to admit that NASA leadership is executing this policy in a deliberately slow fashion. When their words make it clear that they do not want to “execute policy” then we have the right to judge their actions, based on how well they are executing. If NASA was functioning as a business, they would be accused of deliberate misconduct and lacking integrity for their deliberate and dishonest attempts to stop their “customers” (the taxpayers represented by Congress). All we space-minded taxpayers are really asking for is honesty and forwardness regarding SLS. Instead, NASA drags their feet and clearly attempts to stop SLS, while spouting claims to the public that they are doing everythin they can to advance human space exploration. Something here doesn’t jive!

  2. Point made. The NASA Administrator does not “pick policy” on the large scale. Charles Bolden is not going to decide all on his own that the US should reorient its manned space program on exploring Venus, beginning in 2018. Other hand, any Administrator has some domain in which to exercise his authority, if only to move pencils about on his desktop. That’s why we remember Dan Goldin as the “Better, Faster, Cheaper” Man.

    So. I don’t think Bolden has dealt adroitly with Congress, or with news media. He hasn’t made an effective case for administration policy. I don’t think he’s been especially honest in open testimony, or even in private encounters. This has harmed his agency, which has lost respect in the eyes of politicians and the public at large. And I think this is a “policy pick” which went awry — that Bolden deliberately chose against being candid. One can imagine reasons for this, such as deference to a superior officer, but excuses don’t atone for failure. Loyalty, too,is a “policy pick.”

  3. Borecrawler —

    I agree that NASA’s leadership is performing a Congressional mandate at a slow pace, so slowly this probably represents deliberate policy — whether Charles Bolden’s policy or Barak Obama’s policy I will leave open. This can be objected to, I concede.

    But that wasn’t my point, which was a much lesser one, namely that objecting to Bolden and Garver because they sounded like Obama loyalists rather than like Reagan loyalists was silly.

    • I think the beef Congress has with NASA’s leadership isn’t so much that they fought for the President’s plan; that was their job in 2010. The problem they now face is Congressional concerns that they didn’t follow the law once the 2010 NASA Auth. Act was signed 330 days ago. The subpoenaed documents originally sought in May are in part to determine whether either the Administrator or Deputy Administrator passively “slow-rolled” both SLS and Orion MPCV or were active, engaging participants in that effort. And based on the Shelby letter to the White House of earlier this month, there are concerns that appropriated funds for SLS have been misallocated. How the Senate or House Approp’s. Committees will respond to those concerns is unknown at this point.

  4. My bet is that the appropriation committees are going to take a pass on all this. NASA took a 2 billion dollar whack (from budget forecasts, at least) in the last couple years; it’s sure to get another cut later this year when all the discretionary programs get whacked. Once the dust clears, there may not be enough money left to purchase a memorial plaque for the SLS.

    Besides that, there’s _no_ reward for any politician in trying to discipline NASA. Find a juicy sex scandal there or a couple of astronauts double billing for their time in orbit, and maybe people will pay interest. Otherwise, the sums involved, at this point, are still negligable; the issues are esoteric for anyone but bureaucrats and policy wonks, and except for dedicated space enthusiasts — most of them conspicuously not fans of Congressional government or even of NASA, most people simply don’t care.

    And should they? Is NASA that important? Does it still get a full chapter in high school civics texts? Is it that unique? Or is this hullabaloo about funding and obedience just a minor incident, on a par with those a dozen agencies have had with Congress every year since 1789?

    • Mike,

      There is plenty of reward for members of Congress to go after the Administration in disciplining NASA. There are political awards for both Republicans and Democrats. And there are institutional issues of separation of powers. Far from no rewards, there’s no cost to Congressional representatives for going after the Administration. Why do you think Bolden & Co. are under subpoena by the full Commerce Committee?

      Both houses of Congress passed the 2010 NASA Auth. Act by over 2/3rds majorities. In the case of the House vote, there was a very open, public debate that was actually on TV, a first, before the overwhelming vote to defeat the President’s space plan is lieu of one developed by the Senate. And the opposition to the President’s vision for space has, if anything, only grown since then. Members of Congress dislike it quite a bit when the Will of Congress, once expressed through authorizations and appropriations, is flagrantly violated, as the Administration has done here. Last month, the House Approps Space Subcommittee restricted its SLS funding language to the point where it was almost paint-by-numbers, line-by-line instructions. That was done so that the NASA leadership will definitely be looking for legal counsel should they play the same games in FY12 as they’ve done this year with FY11 SLS appropriations. At the same time, CCDev got a funding haircut. Oh, and a chunk of funding was yanked out of the Agency’s Cross-Agency support for the NASA IG to do an independent investigation of the NASA leadership’s handling of SLS and Orion. So NASA has to pay out of its own funding for an investigation done outside of its own IG of its leadership’s conduct–ouch!

  5. Oh my! This is informative. You’ve obviously done your homework, much more than I, and I genuinely appreciate that you’ve given a detailed response to my comment. You’re a good man and a good writer, Hillhouse, and I hope your efforts prosper.

    That said, I still have an important but answered question. In your estimation, are these contretemps between NASA and Congress an unusual occurence, fraught with future significance? Or are they ordinary and not especially consequential events?

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